JONATHAN CAMERON/FAIRFAX NZ
A herd of water buffalo in Canterbury. A flock of ostriches in the Bay of Plenty. What are the stories behind some of the more exotic creatures to be found on New Zealand farms? JOHN McCRONE reports.
A few years ago, you never knew what might turn up in a paddock in the backblocks. Bison, tahr, water buffalo, elk, ostriches, angora goats, a ferret fur farm.
After agricultural subsidies were removed in the 1980s, New Zealand farmers were forced into all kinds of experimentation.
And to be fair, some of it stuck. There are a number of new industries, like kiwifruit, seed cropping and aquaculture, as a result.
But when it comes to pastoral farming, the story is mostly about sheep being replaced by cows. It makes you wonder what happened to those more exotic ventures, and whether any still have the potential to be the next big thing after dairy conversions.
* ‘Delicious’ tahr good for business
* Water buffalo make a splash as rewarding all-rounders
* Everyone urged to give ostrich meat a go
* Missed opportunity for goat export
Ostriches are an obvious place to start. Remember the buzz about those?
In fact New Zealand had ostrich farms back in the 1880s. With ostrich feathers an essential in ladies’ fashion, there were flocks of birds in Bishopdale in Christchurch, and Pukekohe outside Auckland.
Ostriches then made a splashy return in the 1990s when – rather like forestry blocks and carbon credits – they were promoted as a “get rich quick” scheme.
The sales pitch was that ostriches are like fast-breeding chickens with an astronomical growth rate.
Forget sheep that can only turn out a couple of lambs a year. A single ostrich could produce 40 chicks in a season. Rear the eggs in an incubator, finish the young in a field, and by the end of the year you would have birds each delivering 30 kilograms of supermarket meat.
Even better, ostrich hides were valuable too. The leather – five times stronger than cow – was in high demand by the shoe trade. Farmers would get double the bang for their buck.
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Soon, flocks behind deer fencing became a familiar sight on country drives. But look around and they all seem to have disappeared again just as quickly.
The big commercial operations like New Zealand Ostrich Export (Ostex) in Southland, which was talking about rearing 10,000 birds a year, have closed down.
The sole remaining exporter appears to be Tajo Ostrich, run by former Korean bond trader Hyosup Bae.And Bae is down to 1100 ostriches having shifted last year to leased land at Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty.
So what happened?
Tajo’s ex-farm manager Susan Binks – who is now in Auckland working on a technology start-up – says ostrich mania was something going on around the whole world. New Zealand caught it off Australia.
And it did seem an ideal business proposition because of the potential growth rates and the emerging popularity of leaner meat. Also diseases like bird flu were hitting the big suppliers in South Africa. That created a gap New Zealand in particular could fill.
“With our disease-free status, we could get into closed markets like Germany, Korea and Japan.”
Binks says the initial wave of ostrich farm was largely speculative – mostly small-time investors with lifestyle blocks who were quickly burnt off. But Tajo and Ostex were meant to represent a second wave of commercial farming with the scale and marketing to sustain a real industry.
Ostex, for instance, established an export brand, Z’lana. It raised chicks at a hatchery in Lumsden and did deals with farmers throughout the South Island to finish the birds in their fields.
Because of the lack of a meatworks able to carve up a 100kg poultry carcass, Ostex joined with a Gore horsemeat exporter to add a defeathering room and suitable processing chain.
It seemed all go. But according to Ostex’s marketing manager Peter Hishon – now an estate agent in Alexandra – the rapid growth which was the great selling-point of the ostrich also turned out to be its Achilles’ heel.
Hishon says once ostriches get to three months, they are pretty well bullet proof. The chicks are fragile however.
“You ask anyone growing chickens or other poultry and it’s not easy. One little mistake and you can lose the lot. And ostrich chicks grow ten times bigger, so all your problems are magnified.”
So big broods but with high casualty rates, says Hishon.
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The chicks got stressed by New Zealand’s un-savannah-like rapid changes in weather and the need to keep moving them into larger enclosures. Getting the right nutrients in the supplemental feed was another learning curve.
It already represented a lot of money to get the chicks to two foot high, he says. “I had clients in tears regularly from losing whole batches just through temperature fluctuations, food, water – so many little things that could go wrong.”
Ostex investor and general manager Paul Houlahan says perhaps with a few more years of experience, Kiwi farmers would have got the hang of it. Ostriches would have indeed become commonplace. Yet then there was the dairy boom and so, in 2007, Ostex decided to cash out.
“Don’t get me wrong. The industry could’ve worked. But the dairy guys came along and paid us too much money for our land. It’s as simple as that,” Houlahan says.
In Kawerau, Tajo Ostrich’s Bae still feels hopeful.
Bae says having moved his operation from the Urewera ranges to take advantage of Kawerau’s more benign climate, he is building up his flock again. He hopes to have 2500 birds next season and 5000 within four years.
There is still an international market – his Korean customers especially. Selling the meat is no problem, Bae says. So ostrich may yet click for New Zealand third time around.
Thinking about why you would see what you would see in a field, clearly there has to be some basic protein per hectare calculation going on to justify it – at least if we are talking about an export proposition.
Yet it is obvious New Zealand also supports quite a few exotic species just at a lifestyle block or hobbyist level of interest.
Alpacas and llamas are a classic. With prices starting at $500 an animal, and pedigrees fetching ten times that, there is a good domestic trade in these South American natives simply as upmarket rural pets.
The fleeces might be worth something as a cottage industry, off-setting their upkeep. However they are never going to be farmed because of their economic return.
A step up from that is niche livestock that might support a small business aimed at the domestic market. Like water buffalo.
Water buffalo are of course a domestic species of cattle farmed for 4000 years across Asia and the Middle East for their meat and milk, as well as for pulling a plough. The grey swamp buffalo is used more for its meat, the black river buffalo more for milking.
Overseas it is commonplace. And in 1991, agricultural scientists shipped a small research herd to New Zealand to encourage local farmers to explore their possibilities.
Few – except famously Darcy Craze at Barrytown on the West Coast – had a go. His Buffalo Grill and Bar became a talking point, selling steaks to curious locals.
But in the mid-2000s, with farmers’ markets and the taste for authentic cuisine taking off, a few entrepreneurs decided to get into mozzarella, halloumi and other buffalo milk products.
Auckland’s Whangaripo Valley has been winning cheese maker medals. And now Canterbury has Wairiri Water Buffalo, started by Lucy Appleton and partner Christo Keijzer, near Coalgate.
Appleton, who has run tourism ventures and does ski instructing, says hers is a typical story of wanting to start a business that could support the family on an affordable piece of land.
She was thinking about sheep or goats. However when she came across a boggy 40 hectares in the Canterbury foothills which no-one else wanted, she realised it would be perfect for water buffalo.
“It’s similar to when they brought water buffalo to Italy. It was the poor people of Campania who had the boggy low land which was right.”
Appleton is determined to have an ecological operation. She has planted flax and set aside bush. The herd has been built up to 50 using top Italian genetics. And she has been to Italy to certify as a cheese maker.
However she agrees water buffalo are not an export candidate. There is a good local demand – you have to get to Riccarton Farmers’ Market in the first hour before her week’s production is sold out. But a herd such as hers is likely to remain a rare sight.
Surplus male water buffalo – along with unwanted male llamas and alpacas – also find their way into the domestic market for rare meats.
Australia of course exports its kangaroo and crocodile now. There are plenty who want to try something different from the butchers. And in small ways, this supports some of the exotic species trade.
There are ventures like Blenheim’s Premium Game – formed by four recreational shooters – which are taking advantage of New Zealand’s large population of feral animals. It supplies restaurant cuts of wild caught pig, hare, wallaby, goat, tahr and Arapawa sheep.
Tahr – a Himalayan goat that has become a considerable pest on the precipitous slopes of the Southern Alps – is tasty enough that Canterbury farmer Goodwin McNutt, working with Lincoln University, even had a go at rearing them commercially in the 1990s.
Another surprising sight for city folk out on a drive.
Returning to unusual species that might be a genuine export prospect, something else which catches the eye after ostriches is elk – the Cadillac of meats according to US importers doing an enthusiastic trade in farmed New Zealand animals.
It turns out elk is what Kiwis call wapiti – sort of. And it takes us to the deer industry which is one of New Zealand’s experiments which has stuck around – again, sort of.
Tom May, a Southland farmer and founder of exporter Elk Supreme, says venison exports are looking good this year. It is the current top-earning meat.
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“But we’ve been through a hell of a rock and roll over the past 20 years.”
Over the past decade, half of the country’s deer farmers have exited the industry, May says.
Deer began back in the 1970s as a pest control service rounding up wild animals. Quality was patchy. Then began farming and New Zealand is now the world’s major venison exporter, with Germany and Belgium being the big customers.
While deer farms have become a common sight with a national herd of a million animals, venison sales are only about $180m a year, with antler velvet – used in Chinese medicine – bringing in another $40m. This compares to $5 billion annually from beef and lamb exports.
However May says with continued tinkering of the production model, at least the venison outlook now looks stable.
So to the complications of elk.
A variety of deer species were released in New Zealand to create sport for hunters – red deer, fallow deer and Canadian elk, or what native Americans call wapiti.
In New Zealand, the elk interbred with the red deer in Fiordland and over the past 100 years have become the hardy local hybrid that we call wapiti.
However true elk are bigger. And there is also a market opportunity in sales to the US where they are especially revered, but due to native diseases like meningeal brain worm, a nematode parasite, elk farming is difficult over there.
May says Elk Supreme was set up 10 years ago at his Winton farm using imported elk in a bid to re-establish a purer bloodline. Yet that remains a separate speciality business.
What has emerged instead as an important advance for the deer industry is using elk bulls and red deer hind to produce large wapiti crosses.
The elk dads supply the genetic bulk. And you only need a few of them. The smaller red deer then make the cheapest mothers. May says this new formula means you get wapiti-sized weaners at red deer prices, giving extra money both to breeders and finishers.
“With the new schedule, you’re looking at $8 per kg where normally it would have been $5 or $6. That means the fattener can afford to go and pay $300 or $400 for a wapiti-cross weaner, where for a red, it would have been $200 or $250.”
May says it has been the saving of the deer industry. “I tell you, if they hadn’t flicked to that $8 schedule last summer, we’d have lost another heap of farmers.”
It is another lesson in the economics of farming.
It might be fun imagining elk as the next surprise story for New Zealand agriculture. But instead it has come back to kilos of protein per hectare of paddock.
Elk and red deer are being mixed up again and sold as young, tender and grass-fed “Cervena” – the brand-name New Zealand uses internationally without being too specific about the underlying genetics.
Chasing down another exotic – bison – produces a similar message.
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Garth Free breeds both elk and bison on a small property at Horrellville, north of Christchurch.
Bison have also been in New Zealand a long time. US president Theodore Roosevelt sent some when they seemed endangered. Most went to zoos. Then in the 1990s, a few like Free began to build up herds as a potential commercial operation.
Free says bison are farmed in the US. And they taste even better than elk. “They’re the nicest beef you’ve ever had.”
Apart from a susceptibility to sheep-borne malignant catarrhal fever (MCF) – which in Canterbury is a problem – bison are easy to rear.
“They’re very much the same as cattle in the paddock – although bison are much more alert to predators and opportunities. If you leave the gate open, they’ll whip out straight-away.”
Free says he built up a decent herd for a while but is now back down to just three. He found they were more valuable sold to other bison fanciers than sent to the slaughterhouse.
However where they may become commercial is as beefalo – a hybrid of bison bulls over Charolaise cows. Again, the most economic route to a better supermarket steak.
It is the way farmers have to think, Free says. Townies probably do not realise it is standard to rear cross-breeds – pairings like Simmental bulls and Hereford cows, Suffolk rams and Romney ewes, Duroc boars and large white sows.
“You’re looking for biological efficiency. So the best maternal breeds are your smaller, hardy, good-milking types, mated to the great big male breeds.”
Most of what is in a New Zealand paddock is exotic in this sense, even if it is a bullock or lamb, says Free. It might not look too much like its mum or dad.
And a mature industry needs to have this level of control over its genetics. Which is why sheep and beef will continue to dominate, Free says.
As production systems, they have been tuned to a degree that will be hard for any newcomer animal to beat.
Forget ostriches and even bison. If he had to put money on something novel to follow dairy, it would be on sheep-milk – a new twist on an old familiar. “When it comes to biological efficiency, our ability to turn grass into milk can’t be beaten.”
Is there anything else? Goats are another logical-sounding option that have been talked up for a long time.
The world goat meat market is huge and the main customers are in countries which have gotten a lot wealthier. New Zealand has sold feral goats. And now South African Boer goats are starting to be farmed for the table.
Shingle Creek Chevon near Alexandra in Central Otago is one of those hoping to build an export business. It has 4000 goats across several properties.
Breeder Tony Grayling says Muslim countries like Malaysia are taking all that New Zealand can sell. And they are a good fit for Central Otago because goats will even eat its briar and baby wilding pines.
You can tell from the sales literature how Shingle Creek is aiming to create a compelling proposition from New Zealand’s “clean and green” image.
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“Our free roaming goats eat rosehips, thyme and other wild herbs as well as broom and gorse; it’s almost like we’re naturally marinating our meat from the inside!” reads the blurb.
So it is smart marketing. And Tajo Ostriches’ Binks says it is an example of how Kiwi farming is in fact shifting to innovation that is focused more on the customer, less on the production.
She says where before a new kind of animal might have caught the eye – the simple gee whiz factor that ostriches had – now it is about creating a brand first.
“That’s why we’re seeing the rise of farmers who have scale – who can build their own markets, tell their own story, and therefore don’t become just price-takers selling a commodity.”
So Binks says something quite different could still end up in a local paddock. But it won’t be as random or speculative as it was a few years ago. All that experimentation has taught farmers another lesson now.